All photos: Krister Palais
Blues Lady with a story to tell
Yours Truly met Nora Jean at the Skanevik Blues Festival 2013 in Norway, where she represented with authentic traditional Chicago Blues, backed by a trio of truly experienced Blues musicians; Vino Louden on guitar, (survivor of the fatal car crash involving Koko Taylor’s band The Blues Machine). Andrè Ramon Howard played the bass and Derrick D’mar Martin beat the drums.
They performed an impressive and varied concert, to the audiences cheerful enjoyment. When Nora Jean sang her deeply emotional soul ballads, many females in the audience burst into tears. The male spectators were also obviously touched. Her somehow controversial career has been spotlighted on many stages, big and small. With temporary breaks for family life and raising children, she has been through numerous comebacks. Nora Jean was in 2002 awarded by the Black History Association for “Keeping the Blues Alive”. Being re-established in prime time and the major festival circuit, she is back where she belongs. Being a several years nominee for the Blues Foundation’s W.C. Handy awards; Best New Artist and Best Traditional Blues Female Artist, under the surnames Wallace and Bruso. Nora Jean appears with an outspoken and amiable personality, has many stories to tell, that she often finishes with an open laughter.
Miss Mae’s juke joint
– Nora Jean, Blues Lady and one of a kind. And you’re actually a southern girl ? I think you were born and grew up with the blues. In your family and relatives.
– That’s right. I was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. But I was raised like 30 miles north of Greenwood, on a plantation called Equen Plantation, in a rural area outside Clarksdale. That’s where all the cotton fields, and been fields are about, oh yes. My own father, Bobby Lee Wallace, was a sharecropper and a blues artist. My daddy did Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and I think it was Earl Hooker. And my mother, Ida Lee Wallace, did a lot of gospel. Old gospel like the Staple Singers, what Pops Staple and his children were singing. And Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker, Shirley Ceasar, The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Mighty Clouds of Joy. My uncle, Henry ”Son” Wallace, played guitar and blowed harmonica. This was all like in the family.
– You had an aunt who ran a juke joint, is that right?
– No, my grandmother, it was my fathers mother. She ran a juke joint and used to sell like catfish sandwich, pig ear sandwich, ham hocks and hot sauce. Every weekend, like on Friday nights, the families used to get together and go down to Miss Mae’s juke joint. I wrote a song about that; ”Down to Miss Mae’s Juke Joint”, in 2003 and put it on my CD ”Going back to Mississippi”. So, every Friday, all the brothers, and the cousins and peoples all over the plantation, used to come down to Miss Mae’s juke Joint. That’s where she had the jukebox in there, and people was gambling there. But all the kids used to be in one room, apart from the grownups. We had a whole in the door that we used to fight over, me and my cousins. Peeping in on the grown ups, listening to them playing the blues and dancing, just having a good time.
– They played acoustically, right?
– Yeah acoustic. ”Mississippi Stomping Feet Blues” is what they used to do.
– How long did she keep that juke joint?
– Well, Mama kept… She’s my grandmother, mama to my father, but I called her Mama. She kept that juke joint until we were grownup big kids. When she started running that juke joint, I think I was like about 13. Then she started getting sick and bad health. She gets that away.
– But you were to young to perform there?
– Yeah, I was too young to perform there. But I remember when I was about seven years old, this was my first paid performance. My oldest brother Joe, him and his friends, I guess they had went out to a movie, or something. They came in late, and went into the kitchen. I remember him telling his friends; ”Man, I got a little sister, she can blow”! And in order to prove his point, he came in there, woke me up. “Hey Sue”, that’s what he called me, that’s my nickname of my brother. ”Sue, get up and sing for my friends”. I remember my mother hollering at them, telling them; ”Don’t go in there and wake that gal up”, just like that! So, he came in there, woke me up, and I did some Howlin’ Wolf, ”When you hear me howlin’, callin’ for my darling”. He just gave me a nickel and piece. So, that was my first paid performance. I was about seven years old.
– So, you practiced for yourself back home there. Did you do anything at school, or something?
– Yeah, I was the Grand Prize winner of the 1976 talent show, at my West Tallahatchie high-school. So I won the competition. And then after that, I did another talent show at Black Bowl Elementary, in Glendore, Mississippi. And then after that, I just moved on to Chicago.
Scottie and The Oasis.
– Were you connected with Chicago Blues right away, or did it come gradually
– No. I moved to Chicago in 1976. And I moved in with my mothers sister, Rosa Mae. She was working at this factory there, where they were making TV frames. She tried to get me a job out there with her. She told me, all I gotta do is just keep the house clean. Because I was living with her. And cook your oatmeal every now and then. So, one day I was in the kitchen cooking. I don’t how long she had been standing there, listen to me singing. I was singing the song about Betty Wright’s, ”Tonight’s the night that you make me a woman”. Then she scared me, she said; ”Damn girl, you can sang”! And I tell her; ”Auntie, you scared me”! She said; ”Nora, you can sing”! I said, ” Is that what they say”? Back then there were like ”plug and sets”, you know.
Put money in some kind of thing and keeping it for Christmas. And see how much could they save up doing that. She said; ”I got a friend, he got a band, his name is Scottie, (Purvis Scott). I gotta go down and plug my set on Friday. You wanna go with me? If I axe him to let you get up there and sing. Would you sing”? I said; “Yeah”! So, we went down there, to The Majestic that Friday night. And Scottie was sitting at the door. He would collect what you gotta pay to get in. When she came to the door, she said ”Hi Scottie, this is my niece Elnora from Mississippi. She called me Elnora. ”Scottie, this gal can sing”! You know, old folks call you gal instead. “Won’t you let her get up there and do a couple of songs”? He said; ”Okay, when I get back up there, after we do the first round”. So, they got me up there, on the second set. And I didn’t know what key I did the songs in, or nothing, because I was new at this, like singing with a band. This was the first band I ever performed with. ”Say, what key are you doing it in, what keys you’re wanna do tonight”? I said; “I don’t know”. He said; ”I tell you what, you just start singing and we’ll find your key”. So, I started singing, they found my key, He said, do you know anything else”? I said; “Yeah, ”Shame”, by Evelyn Champagne King. He said; “Okay, just start to sing it”. And the crowd just went wild. After I did those two songs, then after the band took a break, he came down, ”Who you’re working with”? I didn’t know music was “working” then.
I said; ”Where my auntie’s trying to get me on there, where she’s working”. He said, ”No, who do you sing with”? I said ”No one”. He said; ”We need a female in our band. Would you like to work with my band”? He gave me his card, address and told me where they went to rehearsal on every Wednesdays. I went down there and rehearsed with Scottie and The Oasis. And I started to work with Scottie from 1976 until 1982. He got killed in 82, and then the band and everybody just went their separate ways, so…
– The first time I heard more about you, was when the late Jimmy Dawkins bragged about you, recording with him.
– The Late Great Jimmy Dawkins! I’ve started going to a cosmetology college. For hair, skin and nails, stuff like that. I got to school because I didn’t have nobody else to work with. And I didn’t know the industry. You know, I didn’t know the bands, and all that stuff. What all that was about. I was just working with Scottie, you know. When he got killed, I thought my career just went down the drain. So, I had to find somebody else I liked. Then one time, a girlfriend called and said; ”Nora, you know they opened a new club on Lake St. Louis, You wanna go down there tomorrow night and check it out”? I said; ”Yeah, if I can find a babysitter, I would come along”. I have two boys, so I asked my mom to keep them for me. She did! So, me and Lisa went down there. It was a nice club, and this guy, Jumping Willie Cobbs, was working there. That’s when I met Jimmy Dawkins.
He were there to sit in that night. And he came up to me and said; ”Ain’t you that girl that used to work with Scottie”? I said; ”Yeah, but Scottie has been dead for like a year”. He was asking; ”What you’re doing now”? ”Nothing but going to school”. He said, ”Have you ever had a rec out? When I get up there I want you to come up and do a song”. So, when he got up there and started playing, they called me up and I did a song. And he said; ”You know you got a hell of a voice, you need to be on wax! If you write a couple of songs, I’ll take you to the studio and cut you”. Oh my God, he shouldn’t have told me that! Ha, ha, ha! I went right home and started working it out. It took me like three days to write this song. I wrote two of them; ”Untrue Love” and ”All my love”. My little drummer, him and I both used to work with Scottie. His name is Eddie, and we called him ”Fast Eddie”, cause he’s bad on drums. ”Eddie, I met this guy named Jimmy Dawkins, who told me if I write a couple of songs, he would take me to the studio. I need you to come over here and put the beat to it”. He came over, and me and him did that song. He started beating on the table, with the beat. We did the songs and put it on a tape. And then I had it on paper and I called Jimmy about a week later. I said ”Jimmy, I got he songs together”. He said ”What? I’m coming over, where are you living”? I gave him my add, he came over, and he said; ”This is good Nora! I’m gonna set up some studio time for you next week”.
So, we went in next week and he got ”Professor” Eddie Lusk, Johnny B Gayden on bass and Rick Kirch on guitar. We had somebody else, I think it was Lovie Lee on piano and himself. We cut that record, he printed it up and everything. That was ”Untrue Love”, my first 45, on Jimmy’s label Leric Music. It was a good record that got on the radios. Then he had to do a tour and he took me out there with him to promote that record. He was taking me around to promote my 45. And I’ve been going ever since… Later, him and me went back into the studio, and two other LP. We did “Feel The Blues, on JSP and ”Kant Sheck Dees Bluze” on Earwig label. That’s when I put two songs on his LP.
– And you were already travelling with Jimmy Dawkins. To Europe eventually?
– Jimmy Dawkins put me out there, he was my mentor! We did Europe in 1987, we was over in Europe a month. I’d just travelled all over the world with Jimmy. Places I have forgot, can’t even remember. Thanks God and Jimmy, where ever I wanted to travel, he would put me out there. He taught me things about the music industry. He taught me how to act on the stage. Because I used to be so wild! When I hit that stage, I’d be squatting and walking on my knees…Ha, ha, ha! He said, ”You’re a lady, you don’t do that. Don’t you never wear shadies on the stage”. He taught me a lot about how to act on stage. When you feel it, when you freed your spirit, You can’t be walking on your knees all over the edge on the stage”. That’s what I used to do, I was wild on stage.
– Where was that coming from?
– It was in me, but he taught me because I didn’t know. I acted like the rock people would act, you know. It ended with me starting being a lady. He said; “Wear gowns and nice outfits. Just be glamorous, like a glamorous woman. “You’re attractive, you’re tall”. He made me look good, and started taking me around. Helped me buy my performing clothes and gowns.
– How long did it last, working with Jimmy Dawkins?
– I worked with Jimmy until 1992, when my boys begin to grow up. Because my mom used to keep them boys while I was on the road. But her health got bad. She was raising my boys, but she told me; ”You gotta stay home and take care of your boys. God gave you a talent, you’re gonna always have that music. But raise your own boys, be a mother to them”! They were getting hard headed and disobeying. You know how boys are. The last show me and Jimmy did was at The Blues, a B.B. King’s club in New York. That was the last show we did together in 92. I said; “I had to get out of the road and take care of the kids, I can’t give them up. My mom don’t have time, she ain’t got the patience to work with them”. She’d been taking care of my boys for about 7 or 8 years. That’s what I did, got out of the music for a while. Got me a job and took care of them boys. Until my oldest boy had graduated from high school, and went into the navy. And my baby son, he’s still around me now. He ain’t going nowhere. He got his own family and stuff, but he still takes care of me. Helps his mama out, you know, bringing my grandkids over.
– You still write your own songs, but you have a whole lot of other songs. You mentioned Howlin’ Wolf here. Who else were your influences?
– Yes, I still do write my own songs. Big Mama Thornton, I love her. John Lee Hooker, I love Blind Willie. I love me some Koko Taylor, who became my closest friend. And Big Maybelle. On the soulside, I like Sam Cooke, but Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Brown and Gladys Knight are the greatest.
– So, you had it all in your bag, going out on the road?
– I can do it all, the soul side, I can do traditional Blues, R&B. I can do it all! And Gospel. My favourites in Gospel are Mahalia Jackson and Shirley Ceasar. Those are my favourite Gospel womens. And I got saved, gave my life over to Christ. Doors just started to open, things just started to happening. I got me some work around in Chicago. With Johnny Drummer, Eddie Shaw and James Wheeler, I was working with Willie Kent, Little Johnnie Christian and those guys when I was younger. Mary Lane and Joe Barr also encouraged me. Jimmy Dawkins used to get me gigs with them. Sometimes, when he would go out of town, and I couldn’t go. But he’d always used to help. ”Won’t you let Nora work with you guys this weekend”? And he always helped that the little money kept coming in, even though I wasn’t with him. Sometimes he didn’t have the money, I guess to pay me, so he always kept me working. At 1815 club on the West Side on Roosevelt Road. I used to work there, and did a lot of stuff with Willie Kent. But my husband was so jealous, he didn’t want me to back into the music.
But I met Billy Flynn in 2001. I had totally got out of it, but it was there. I used to get fired of my job singing. They didn’t want me to sing, but I couldn’t stop! I’m always singing. I’m working my job and singing. But they said; ”Hey Nora, you’re too loud, you know”! And this guy, Billy Flynn, oh we’ve been friends for like ever. One night Willie Kent was doing a show, when Billy asked him; ”Have you ever heard of Nora Jean. I got a CD, I sure would like her come help me do it”. So, Willie Kent called me and my ex-husband next day. ”Oh, Billy Flynn want Nora to help him do a CD”. My husband he didn’t want me to do it. But I couldn’t get out of the music, it was in me. So, I went there and did it anyway. I did “Blues and Love” on Easy Baby Records. I decided to go on to do the CD with Billy. And Jerry decided to divorce me after that. I would only be on that CD, and it felt so good! So, I started back to singing, started to go around the clubs. As I was singing on Lee’s Unleaded, on the South Side. One night Leola ”Lee” Grey said; “Nora Jean, people want you to come up here and do a show for us. The critics want you because they’ve been hearing you sing”. I got a band together and went up in there. It’s been going ever since.
Nora Jean and The Fellas
– Was that when your own band The Fellas came about?
– They came about because I wanted to come back into music. After I had did that thing with Billy Flynn. It felt good so I’d go and get me a band. So, when my kids got grown, I met this guy Jerry, and we got married. I got my own band called Nora Jean and The Fellas. I got my husband Jerry, he was a guitar player. I got this guy named Chuck, he was the bass player. Allen Kirk was my drummer. We had someone else, who was the second guitar player, because I always have two guitars. I think it was Willie Davis.
– Did they all stayed with you in the band?
– They did shows with me until my ex-husband didn’t want to do it no more. ”We can’t keep no money, if we both drink it”. That kind of went down, but I kept going. Back then I was drinking up every penny I could get, smoking all them cigarettes. I couldn’t keep no money, so I dropped it again. And started working again. But I couldn’t give up music, I kept going and it’s been going ever since. And then in 2002 I met Mark my other ex-husband. He just cut my first CD “Nora Jean Bruso – Sings The Blues” on Red Hurricane, and he would promote me real good. And Billy Flynn played on that LP. In 2003 I cut another CD, “Going back to Mississippi”, and got me a record label, Severn Records. And I got me an agent, Piedmont Talent Inc. It was just going so good, and so fast… My ex-husband got bigheaded, he thought he could talk to the promoters any kind of way. He thought he could do things untouchable. But what he was doing was damaging my career. People that had got sold, they didn’t want to fool with me. He like wanted a divorce, since he had screwed that up, you know. I gave him the divorce, moved on and just kept singing. We had moved to La Porte, Indiana. That’s where I met Pinetop Perkins. He used to come out to my gigs at Buck’s Workingman’s Pub. I recorded with him, B.B. King and Eric Clapton, on the Pinetop Perkins and Friends album. And I got a reunion with Jimmy Dawkins band at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2002. And I’m still singing!
– Then You turned more or less to gospel music and a new life?
– I went more into gospel after I was raising my kids. When I got off the road, I went into gospel and I still do gospel. After this CD, I’m gonna do me a gospel CD. That’s what I told you when I said when I gave my life over to Chist. I’m doing the gospel, going to church. I’m still being obeyed to Gods words, I still study my bible. I still live according to what the bible had tell me to live. I got saved, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. I don’t do nothing but just trying to stay healthy, and do the will of God. I would mention his name everywhere I go, because I’m nothing without him. He will direct my paths. I don’t care where I’m at, I will always acknowledge him. Even though some people would throw me off their stage, they’re gonna come back for me. I’m just redeemed in God, he is my salvation, He is my saviour. I know where brought me from and where he’s still taking me, I love him and I will serve him for the rest of my life.
– Being a blues artist, performing on the level that you do. Can it help to live with the Blues?
– I do live with the Blues everyday of my life. If I could perform everyday I would do it. I love it, I love the Blues. When I write my songs, I ask the Lord to help me, to give me clean lyrics. Help me when I hit the stage, I pray all the times before I hit the stage. Help me touch somebody’s heart, somebody’s spirit. Help my music save somebody. I live the Blues everyday, I see things happen. It’s the Blues when I can see peoples in the soup line. But still they’re making a way. God have given them a way to make a way. That’s the Blues, I love the Blues because, I don’t care what music you play. You can play all your soul, your R&B, your pop, your Gospel. But when you get that Blues rap. And you put it on, there’s still a little thing in it. Just like in your spirit. That’s the way it is, that you feel… Oh, this is the real stuff here…You know.
– Blues is about true feelings. What I’m trying to say is, there’s a whole lot of pretenders out there.
– I’m real, it comes out of here in my heart. And I can take any song and turn it into a Blues song. Just like that ”John Mayall” I did on my show last night. You know, that was my style. It was his music, but it was my style. Every song I write is Blues. If I do Aretha Franklin I got that Blues call. It’s me, it’s in me. Blues is something that comes from that deep down in your soul. Blues is something that made Rock’n’Roll, Gospel, everything… Blues is the root of all music, YEAH!
– It might be a way of living too, sometimes?
– It’s a way of living too. Blues ain’t all like sad music. You know, ”Oh, my baby loved me yesterday, I don’t know what I’m wanna do today”. My Blues got that swing too. That power, ”Come on let’s dance”. It ain’t all sad music, ”boom-ka-boom-ka-boom”, like some people are trying to make it out to be. Blues is the root of all music, that’s all I can say. And I love it!
– Watching your concert performance, you cover every angles of it, The deep Blues, the soulful Blues, the shuffle and jumpy Blues. Even a little bit of the Gospel in it. Do that come by experience?
– It’s me, it’s just there, it just comes out. I don’t try to learn how to sing it. It’s just in me, it’s how I am. When I’m performing, it’s just how I am. Even around my house. My mom, she just moved in. I went down to Mississippi in April this year. And I brought her back, she lives with me. I’m singing all the time, I went into her room, She was just sitting up, listening. I said; ”You is so lucky”. She said ”What”? ”You get my talent free, you don’t even have to pay for it. Ain’t you lucky, cause I’m singing all the time”? She just laughed, peeping over a newspaper.
– Do you have time now, to write new songs? And are you working with somebody, to help you with the arrangements, the chords and everything?
– I’m already working on new songs. This is what I do; I write my songs and I got a tape recorder. I don’t know how to read music. But I use my mouth;
“Doo-do-doo-bop”. I tell the musicians how to do it. And they just take it and they play it. Just like that song I did last night, ”Broken Heart”. I told my guitar player Carl Weathersby, to do what I’m humming, and he did it. I tell my band what I want and they do it. Boy, if I could read music, ooohh! But I can’t. All I can do is taking it with me to the rehearsal, and they tape it for me.
– Another question I just can’t avoid. Paying tribute to Koko Taylor. I mean, they are looking for the next Koko, and your name comes up. How do you feel about that?
– I’m excited. Right now, people put me out and write on internet. They write ”Nora Jean, the real queen of the Blues” and stuff like that. You know I enjoy it, but I just wanna be me. I don’t have to be no queen, or nothing. I just want to be what God put in me, and give it to the world. I’m not a queen, I’m just Nora. Nora out here, trying to make a living, singing the Blues. I appreciate my fans as they’re thinking that about me. But it don’t make me no difference, if I’d be a queen, or what. I know I’m Nora Jean, and I do Blues. And I don’t try to pretend, I don’t try to learn the Blues. It’s just me, that’s what I do.
– Before we take it home, let me ask you. Is there any kind of highlight in your career, you can think about?
– Yeah. I think about when I first went to Europe. I just toured it down, I met so many exciting people. But I look at it different now. I look at it like I don’t wanna be the superstar, I just wanna be just me. I don’t want people to look at me like they can’t talk to me, I’m all of this and that. I’m not, I hates that. Treat me like I’m a human being, just like you. And I’m here because God gave me this talent. To make you feel good, to make you enjoy yourself here on earth. I’m never too big, that you can’t talk to me, you can’t take pictures. I always got time for you. I love my fans, I love people, you know. And don’t be scared to talk to me. I’m just me, what you see is what you get. That’s just the way it is…